3 Hallmarks of Effective Practice

Writer  /  Dr. Dave Schroerlucke 

“There is no glory in practice, but without practice, there is no glory.”   -Unknown

Yea… we talkin’ bout it, Allen Iverson.

Vince Lombardi, the legendary American football coach and namesake of the Super Bowl trophy, famously said, “Practice doesn’t make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect.”  This, of course, begs the question: “What exactly constitutes perfect practice?”

I aim to unpack Lombardi’s oft-quoted statement by describing the essential characteristics of the sort of practice that offers the most efficient path to skill-mastery. In order to be most effective, practice must be deliberate, realistic and pressurized.

Deliberate Practice

“This is a fundamental truth about any sort of practice: If you never push yourself beyond your comfort zone, you will never improve.” -Anders Ericcson

Anders Ericcson, a psychology professor at Florida State University and one of the foremost experts on expertise, has studied the psychological makeup and habits of the world’s elite performers for the last four decades in an effort to discern how they were able to develop their superior talent. In his most recent book, “Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise”, Ericcson argues that the best predictor of extraordinary expertise is deliberate practice, which is presented as an upgraded version of his earlier term “purposeful practice.” Purposeful practice involves practicing with undivided attention toward achieving a specific, well-defined goal. Deliberate practice is purposeful practice that is also informed by continual assessment, feedback and goal-revision in order to ensure that the level of challenge always remains just outside the boundary of one’s comfort zone.

An indispensable feature of deliberate practice is the availability of immediate feedback through the use of meaningful metrics – quantitative measures of performance that serve as an accurate indication of one’s current level of mastery. Such objective performance measures allow for the scaffolding of training goals in a way that constantly demands performance that is slightly better than one’s previous best, thereby promoting rapid incremental improvement. Because deliberate practice involves failing a lot, many people do not find it enjoyable. Elite performers, however, delight in observing gradual, incremental progress toward a long-term goal. They aim at the big, but focus on the small. They understand that in order to reach the summit, they must first start down the trail, and see every step as a step toward their goal.

Realistic Practice

“Practice like it’s a game. Play the game like it’s practice.”

-Mike Candrea, Team USA Softball Coach

In addition to being deliberate, practice should be realistic, meaning that it should be structured in a way that reproduces as closely as possible the typical performance environment. There is ample evidence from neuroscience that skill acquisition is state-dependent, meaning that the way in which cognitive, perceptual and motor skills are encoded in the brain includes both the external and internal conditions under which the skills are learned.

Creating realistic external conditions involves practicing in a setting (stadium, field, stage) as similar as possible to where you will perform, using the equipment with which you will perform, wearing your actual performance attire, all while blaring an audio recording of a typical audience while practicing. Visual, tactile and auditory cues are important parts of the learning experience, and any discrepancies in the performance environment are possible sources of distraction.

One’s internal physical state while practicing and performing is just as important as the external environment. Energy levels and alertness are impacted by sleep quality, time of day, meal timing (blood sugar levels), and the presence of stimulants such as caffeine. Taking NSAIDs for pain relief can have a significant impact on proprioceptive ability. Everyone is different, of course, so it is important to pay attention to the effects of any changes to these internal factors so you know how to create the conditions that facilitate your optimal performance. As with external conditions, you want your internal state during practice to as closely as possible resemble that of game day. So be careful about taking ibuprofen for that aching shoulder or a power nap right before the big game.

Pressurized Practice

“Putts get real difficult the day they hand out the money”  – Lee Trevino

Let’s face it. No practice setting can ever perfectly simulate the conditions of an important performance or competition because there is one aspect of performance that is very difficult to replicate – pressure. Throughout this article, a line has been drawn between practice and performance, with the critical difference being that the aim of practice is improving one’s ability whereas the aim of performance is achieving an optimal outcome. The psychological awareness that a particular performance carries more weight, that this time matters, is what creates performance anxiety. The truth is that you might never become comfortable with pressure, but you can become more comfortable performing while uncomfortable. To achieve this, you must structure practice in such a way that you always feel pressure to perform optimally.

An objection that might be raised here is that everyone knows that practice is still just practice, and deep down you always know that how you perform in practice doesn’t really matter. Well, you have to find a way to make it matter. I am not saying you have to find a way of tricking yourself into thinking that it matters. For the type of person who is driven to excel, practice actually does matter. Elite performers are so attached to seeing evidence of constant improvement and progress toward their goals that the day-to-day tracking of results takes on a significance of its own that creates intense pressure. Developing a strong attachment to seeing improvement in performance metrics over time is one of the best ways to pressurize your practice. Believe it or not, for those who care enough about improvement, the threat of having to record a subpar result in your training log can generate a pressure response as intense as a major performance or competition.

Summary

So let’s review. If you want to develop expertise in the most efficient way possible, your practice needs to be deliberate (intentionally designed for measurable improvement), realistic (structured to reproduce performance conditions) and pressurized (monitored in a way that carries personal import).

This is not an argument that no one can achieve a high level of expertise without following these guidelines. No doubt many have. The claim, rather, is that these principles lead to the most rapid learning and efficient development of expertise that is robust enough to stand up under the pressure of high-stakes performance environments.

Purposeful, realistic, pressurized practice is the fastest way to turn visions into reality. Set measurable goals for every practice session that are beyond your previously established performance, record your results and get feedback. Then repeat. Everyday.